Where to Eat, Stay, and Play in Salerno, the Often Overlooked Gateway to the Amalfi Coast

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For millennia, Salerno, Italy has been overshadowed by the nearby Amalfi Coast and big sister Naples—home to world-famous pizza, sea views, and art. Because the two cities enjoy the same tempered climate and rich traditions, Salerno is often affectionately referred to as “little Naples.” The main difference is that, despite recently becoming a tourist attraction once again, Salerno is blessed with less traffic.

The lesser-known Italian gem also happens to have a brand-new airport opening to commercial flights this July. Built to be one of the most eco-friendly airports in Europe thanks to its high energy efficiency and reduced emissions standards, Aeroporto Salerno-Costa d’Amalfi will be located just south of Salerno, making it the perfect gateway to the south end of the Amalfi Coast. Once open, it will make the city and wider region much more accessible to international travelers.

Today, Salerno is the second most populated city in the region of Campania, but the alleyways of the historical center and the kindness of the locals make it feel more like a small town. The city has long been a melting pot, its port exchanging goods and ideas with everywhere in the Mediterranean (and beyond). Walking the streets of Salerno, the local art and architecture signals how various cultures have come together here, including the Romans, Normans, Longobards, and Moors. The city is perhaps best known for its Schola Medica Salernitana, the most ancient medical school in Europe, established in the ninth century AD.

Getting there, and around

Starting from July 12, Aeroporto Salerno-Costa d’Amalfi will be welcoming its first direct flights from Switzerland, France, Germany, the UK, and other Italian cities. The airport is only 13 miles away from the city center (a 20 minute drive). As of right now, the best way to reach Salerno from the airport is to hop into a taxi.

Almost everything there is to see in Salerno is reachable on foot. If you have a car, the ideal spot to park it is a massive underground lot by the docks, in Piazza della Libertà. There, let the sea breeze welcome you to Salerno as you promenade Lungomare Trieste, like the locals do on the weekends, enjoying a gelato or a Spritz at one of the kiosks or chalets. In the summer months, many establishments rent sun beds and umbrellas to take advantage of the sandy beach for half the price you would pay on the nearby Amalfi Coast. Even during winter, you can opt to sit on a bench to the music playing by the street artists and look out at the two coasts expanding from either side of Salerno: to the north that of Amalfi and of Cilento to the south.

Visit the library and a tea bar at the Giardino della Minerva, a terraced botanical garden dating back to the 12th century.

Giardino della Minerva Salerno, Campania, Italy.

Visit the library and a tea bar at the Giardino della Minerva, a terraced botanical garden dating back to the 12th century.

Things to do in Salerno

Traverse the Villa Comunale, a joy in vegetation, and delve into the alleys of the historical center proper. Visit the artisanal workshops famous for their colorful pottery and leather, where you can admire the crafts passed on for millennia. Speaking of tradition, if you dare, you should try Salerno's street food speciality, the pungent meveza ‘mbuttunata (stuffed spleen). It’s a real treat.

For some respite from the summer heat, enter the eclectic Duomo, Salerno’s Cathedral. Take your time crossing the spacey cloister and main building, but make sure you descend into the Baroque crypt of San Matteo, the real jewel of the structure. For a completely different experience after all that splendor, visit the more modest monumental complex of San Pietro a Corte.

Giardino della Minerva, a terraced botanic garden founded in the 12th century, is where the students of the ancient medical school of Salerno would come and study herbal plants in the Middle Ages, and where students from the area still come to study plants and their medicinal uses. So much has changed, and so much has stayed the same! The garden also has an indoor library and a tea bar (tisaneria); you can taste delicious all-natural infusions on the picturesque terrace of the garden, admiring a beautiful vista of the city and the sea below.

It would be remiss not to include a quick visit to Vietri sul Mare, for it is literally 5 minutes away from Salerno by car or train. Vietri is a tiny hamlet, famous for its colorful hand-painted ceramics. If you have time for a day trip, you should consider visiting Amalfi or Positano; you can reach both towns via ferry, bus, or car.

Don’t miss the view of Salerno from Castello di Arechi, the fort dominating the city's mountainside. You will need to arrange private transportation, drive a car, or hop onto a public bus to get there. The castle also houses an archaeological museum with a vast collection of medieval artifacts and a restaurant. If you time your visit well, you can have a panoramic dinner on the castle’s terrace and watch the sunset. The menu is simple but elegant, starring high quality produce from the Amalfi Coast and the nearby area of Cilento.

Salernos beaches rent chairs and umbrellas for half the rates of those in the Amalfi Coast hubs.
Salernos beaches rent chairs and umbrellas for half the rates of those in the Amalfi Coast hubs.
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Fresh fish on display at market stall in Salerno

Fresh fish on display at market stall, Palermo Italy

Fresh fish on display at market stall in Salerno
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Where to eat in Salerno

Many of Salerno’s restaurants are a haven for seafood lovers. With the sea so close, fresh fish is the main ingredient for many establishments, but vegetables and other meats also star on most menus. The cave-like Trattoria A Modo Mio, self-defined as a “trattoria di mare e di terra,” is the go-to location if half your company wants to have classic seafood dishes and the other half prefers other Italian specialties. Try their scialatielli a modo mio, long-shaped pasta typical of this region with Mazara shrimps, burrata, yellow cherry tomatoes, and pistachio; or, order their version of Carbonara, which has nothing to do with the famous Roman dish… this pasta is garnished with porcini mushrooms, sausage, creamy caciocavallo cheese, and Parmigiano. The Michelin-listed restaurant Suscettibile offers elaborate dishes juxtaposing produce that normally wouldn’t mix; the menu changes every month. Place your trust in the chef and choose one of their tasting menus for the best result.

The ingredients of the Mediterranean Diet rule at Osteria Canali, where you can have authentic dishes from Cilento like parmigiana di melanzane—vegetarians should find more dishes to choose from here. The signature characteristic of La Botte Pazza is the free-flowing wine each customer can get from a small fountain in the wall; the sea dishes are just as remarkable.

Where to stay in Salerno

Salerno, Italy is slowly becoming accustomed to tourism, but due to logistical and space reasons, there aren’t many large hotels in the historical center. In the past few years, however, smaller B&Bs have been popping up in beautiful buildings in the city center: La Madegra Sea Suite B&B has various airy rooms with a direct view on the sea, and colorful mosaics on its walls.

One of the best is the central Hotel Montestella, conveniently close to the train station with many spacious rooms. If you’re looking for a big hotel with a swimming pool on top of a sea of amenities, you might need to move further away from the city center—but why would you, when you can visit everything in the city on foot?

Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler